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Keeping the Power On

Schweitzer Engineering sponsors research aimed at keeping power plants running smoothly

In August 1996, a chain reaction caused 4 million people on the West Coast to lose power. Officials spent a year mapping the sequence of events, recording measurements and determining what went wrong. Once they put the pieces together, they discovered the simulation models that could have helped them predict and prevent such events didn’t work – the power-generating machines ran differently than expected.

With funding from Pullman, Washington-based Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory (SEL), University of Idaho electrical engineering professor Brian K. Johnson is designing a system to help power companies keep their simulations up to date.

When the large power generators found in most power plants are built, manufacturers record parameters to describe the way the machines respond to disturbances such as short circuits or changes in demand, which are then used in models for simulations.

“But over time the parameters drift or change a little bit,” Johnson says. “Once the machine is installed onsite, it’s not very easy to do tests and determine new parameters.”

Johnson and graduate student Mike West’s goal is to develop a computer-based system that can monitor a machine’s normal behavior as it operates and use that data to calculate real-time model parameters. A small synchronous generator specially adapted for the project in a UI lab provides them a live platform to test their methods.

“The big advantage of having a lab-scale machine is just having more accurate pictures of how the machine responds,” Johnson says.

The project was made possible in part by a change in UI’s intellectual property policy, which opened the door to more projects with SEL.

Johnson says this partnership benefits both sides. SEL can tap into UI’s faculty expertise, wide array of student researchers and laboratory facilities. And by bringing in new and exciting projects with a local company, UI can better serve its engineering students.

“We’ll be able to do more projects with them, so we have more project students can work on that have direct and immediate interest. They’re doing something that can be applied,” he says. “I think if we’re doing more and more interesting projects, that will also help with recruiting students.”


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